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A psychologist’s guide to surviving Christmas
Stuck with family members, a lack of personal space and pressure to appear jolly can make Christmas difficult – what can be done to improve the experience?
One sometimes wonders why there’s such pressure to socialise over Christmas. It’s quite possibly the worst time of year to crowd together relatives who may struggle to get along when conditions are optimal, but who will have particular difficulty when partners, children, lack of personal space, lack of mood-boosting daylight hours and pressure to appear jolly are thrown into the equation.
But since we’re stuck with the fact that this is the time when families get together, what can be done to improve the experience? What are the best ways to avoid arguments and bad feelings? And how might you change your behaviour, so that a dreaded ordeal becomes instead your best Christmas ever?
First, there are three golden rules for the hosts to follow. These apply to any festive get-together, whether there are legions of guests or only a few, and whether they’re used to meeting up frequently or haven’t seen one another since Christmas 1985.
- Maximise personal space.
- Offer as much predictability as possible as a lack of structure can trigger anxiety.
- Christmas can put a terrible strain on the family budget, so establish financial restraint.
Next, you need to identify the guests or hosts most likely to taint the festive atmosphere and take pre-emptive steps to stop them doing so. Here are the potential offenders and how to tackle them.
The long-suffering host: This person is completely exhausted from the self-imposed effort of making Christmas perfect for everyone else. It all looks great from the outside — the tree is perfectly decorated, the food is prodigious and the holly and mistletoe are in all the right places. But the mood music is sour. Everyone feels sorry for the host who’s constantly working, and worse, they feel guilty.
What to do: If you’re a guest, be assertive and specific. Instead of asking, “What can I do?” explain exactly what you will do: “I’ll arrive with the mince pies.” Or: “During my stay, I’ll be on dishwasher duty.” Make sure the kids are given specific responsibilities as well—it helps everyone feel more equal.
The relative with food allergies or other dietary requirements: A guest who suddenly tells you they can’t eat dairy products or have undergone an 11th hour conversion to veganism can play havoc with the best laid menu plans. In truth, most food allergies are intolerances, and sometimes they’re used as an excuse to avoid eating something that is merely disliked.
What to do: If you have a true allergy, inform your host well in advance, and if it’s feasible, offer to bring your own food. If you have an intolerance, again, let the host know, but reassure them that you can just avoid those particular ingredients, as long as you know which foods contain them. That means the host won’t feel the need to restrict the menu for your sake alone.
The guest who drinks too much: If someone has been working or studying extremely hard, or has felt under pressure recently, they may feel they deserve to let go and drink more than wisdom would dictate. Others might simply be overly fond of the mulled wine.
What to do: The best person to deal with this situation is the host, and the best way to do so is not to single anyone out. Spritzers are a good way to make it seem like there’s more drink flowing than there actually is. Another approach is to keep the soft drinks flowing alongside the wine, and quietly ensure people’s water glasses are filled as often as their wine glasses.
The uncooperative teenager: If you have an adolescent in your party, they may be in that phase when they’d rather be glued to a screen or out with friends than at a family gathering. They’ll continue texting and Whatsapping during meals, avoid eye contact, and join in the post-prandial game of charades only after much cajoling.
What to do: The more you insist on participation, the more the problem will persist — it will become a battle of wills. The best way to handle this problem is for parents to try to find a compromise well before Christmas. Start by asking the host to let you know the fixed occasions during your Christmas stay. Then ask your teenagers to give the dates and times of the outings they hope to attend with their friends during the holiday period.
The new partner: When a relative turns up with a new squeeze, a strained period of awkwardness can follow as everyone desperately tries to make the newcomer feel welcome while at the same time avoiding any reference to previous partners. The new partner may well feel they’re being scrutinised, wondering nervously if they measure up.
What to do: Guests should let the host know in advance the partner they’re bringing this year, so there’s no last-minute discomfort when someone unexpected arrives. The host might let other guests know in advance that someone new is coming along. In every other way, it’s best to treat the new partner in just the same way you treat everyone else.
As for the rest of us: If you’re a guest, let your hosts know when you’re arriving and when you plan to leave, to help them with their planning. If you feel stressed or annoyed, go out for a walk, don’t inflict your irritation on others.
Follow the above rules and maybe, just maybe, yours will be a wonderful Christmas.
Taken from www.telegraph.co.uk